The art of business success

By Steve Hart

Sir Bob Jones wants to set the record straight when I call to ask why he'd rather employ someone with an arts degree than a business degree - something he is often quoted as having said.

"I am sick of being misquoted," he says. "I once made a remark along those lines about 20 years ago when I said I'd rather give a job to a classical student than a bachelor of communications. I was deluged by classical students demanding jobs."

Jones is in his typical bullish, but jovial, mood when we speak. But, despite what he may or may not have said, all the management staff at his Wellington-based commercial property investment company have art degrees in either English literature or history.

"We are a company noted in our industry for our efficiency," he says. "We would only consider a person with a BCom or so-called business studies degree - actually, a badge of dishonour - if we were seeking someone to fill a position in our foyer and even then they probably wouldn't be up to it.

"People are always asking how I find such great people in our management roles. I tell them. But they never seem to act on it and emulate my approach."

Sir Bob says a humanities degree in the "traditional subjects" provides a broad knowledge frame of reference and develops an inquiring mind and imagination.

"I exclude the bogus, lightweight data-collecting subjects such as psychology, sociology, and the like," he says. "Business is not a teachable subject as it's essentially common sense, helped by a love of reading which in turn develops imagination and an inquiring mind.

"I try and actively encourage humanities students with my various scholarships to our universities, including Auckland."

But if you are not able to get a job with Sir Bob, where can an arts degree take you?

Professor Ken Strongman, pro vice chancellor of the College of the Arts at Canterbury University, says the sky is the limit for people with an arts degree.

"I'm not so sure an arts degree is a pathway into commerce, but it is one pathway. What an arts degree gives people is the ability for critical and analytical thinking, something you do not necessarily get from a degree in something such as HR or management or something on the commercial side.

"I don't want to downplay those degrees that cover business, but they tend to be formulaic. You don't learn to break material or information down, be suspicious of it and then build it up again to synthesise something out of it. These are the skills that come from arts degrees.

Even with a first degree, a BA, you will get a grounding in a methodology such as the humanities or social sciences.

"What you can guarantee is that a person who has a decent degree in the arts will have a fundamental understanding of one or two methodologies and all of that is transportable [into business].

"On top of that you've got the sort of liberal arts education - someone who knows a bit about the world culturally - I think that's terrific for people in life generally. But it's a bit of a bonus for those going into the corporate world - it adds a bit of cultural breadth to them."

Professor Strongman says it is impossible to say where art graduates end up in the workforce because the answer is "just too large".

"Arts graduates go everywhere," he says. "The breadth of jobs that you find arts graduates taking is just incredible.

"At the extreme is one pupil who got a BA from Canterbury years ago and ended up as a New Zealand ambassador to the US - he went from a BA to political science and has a wonderful career.

"Another person, who got a PhD in linguistics from here, is now a city councillor and has her own management and consulting company. The only place art graduates don't tend to enter is hard science."

Professor John Morrow, dean of arts at the University of Auckland, says study in the arts will help to develop a range of life skills that will stand graduates in good stead - whatever career they decide to embark on.

"Successful arts graduates are used to thinking creatively and critically, and they acquire sophisticated analytical and communication skills," he says. They also learn to work independently and to manage their time effectively. These attributes are valued by employers across the private and public sectors."

Not that he's pushy or anything, but Sir Bob reckons we should all read his book Degrees For Everyone.

"It sums up my view on the worldwide degradation of universities reflected by sociology, business studies and other such nonsensical subjects targeting lightweights and the gullible," he says.

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